Monikers make for alarmist headlines and also elide the reality. And anodyne handwringing or widespread navel-gazing, though making for indulgent introspection and stormy debates, seldom do enough to make us think.
Therefore, this time round, when “book police” and “textbook vigilante’ Dina Nath Batra got Orient Blackswan to put historian Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India under review, the lack of an outpouring of hysterical shock, grief and protests came as a welcome relief, for this would enable us to view things in the proper perspective.
Orient Blackswan, academic publishers with a robust reputation, has also decided, for reasons best known to it, to “comprehensively reassess” Megha Kumar’s Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969. Batra had no bone to pick with it, and it isn’t the first time publishing houses are exhibiting pusillanimity, so it is futile to enter into conjectures and surmises.
Here lies the crux. Batra isn’t a lone ranger out there; it would be myopic to dismiss him as a revanchist bigot lurking around at the fringe. His antecedents general secretary of Vidya Bharati, the educational wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, head of Shiksha Bachao Andolan, ten lawsuits against the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) for up to 75 “objectionable passages” from various textbooks, one of the petitioners in the Delhi High Court in 2008 against A K Ramanujam’s “offensive” essay on the Ramayan.
His present actions within days of the new political dispensation storming into power, he demands a total revamp of the school history textbooks so that they reflect India’s “ancient glory”. Not only that, he has taken umbrage at the sprinkling of Urdu and Persian words, and is determined to agitate and get them banished.
This is redolent of the ignominious history-rewriting project undertaken by the NDA government the last time it was in power. February 11, 2000, saw Oxford University Press withdrawing two volumes which were a part of the documentation of India’s freedom struggle.
The Indian Council of Historical Research, crowded with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (India’s principal Hindu Right political dispensation), which had commissioned two eminent historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar, trotted out the ostensible reason that there were huge lacunae in Sarkar and Panikkar’s methods. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sarkar, with scrupulous rigour, nails this lie in Beyond Nationalist Frames.
He proves that the Sangh Parivar had played no constructive role in the independence movement. In fact, Veer Savarkar, while serving a prison sentence under the British, had petitioned his captors for clemency, expressing his eagerness to spill the beans about others who were waging an armed struggle for freedom.
Not only that, in The Story of My Transportation for Life, he boasts of having used “invincible logic and an appeal to history” to win over his fellow prisoners, none of whom shared his religious bigotry. It would be dishonest to hold only the Hindu Right, exemplified by Batra and his cohorts and patrons, for skulduggery with history.
Even the so-called liberal and secular parties have done so. For instance, in April 1993, a university student Nancy Jamshed Adajania was charged under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code by the Maharashtra government for authoring a “deeply offensive” piece “Myth and Supermyth”, which had created a furore in the legislature because the dominant Maratha community felt that their idol Shivaji had been insulted.
The Bombay High Court subsequently quashed the charges, holding them to be “Distressing, misguided and misdirected”. Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of James W Laine and quashed the Maharashtra government’s ban on his book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, but even to this date, the state has not permitted its sale.
In Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, J M Coetzee postulates that only the marginalised and powerless seek shelter in taking offence and retaliating against insults or threats to their fragile sense identity because they have no other way of being heard. In India, what happens is diametrically opposite.
The powerful, the victorious, the majority-indulges in being offended, using it to further its politics of historiography. Why does history provide such an attractive target for the bludgeons of bigotry? Because nothing can rival it in creating and perpetrating politico-cultural hegemony.
Before Narendra Modi came to power, there was a tide of panegyric to his development agenda, assuring us that the Sangh Parivar’s revisionist antics were a thing of the past. But, when in the Lok Sabha, he exhorts people to throw off the shackles of 1,200 years of slavery, the farce lies exposed.
The writer is an academic